Once The Fire's Out, Arizona's Firefighters Will Reflect

Fire crews are hoping to fully contain the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire by the end of the weekend, after a week in which the blaze claimed 19 firefighters. As the smoke dissipates and the fire cools, firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., are wondering what they'll do next, without the sense of purpose the fire provided. Nate Rott reports.

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One week ago, the Yarnell Hill Fire covered only a few hundred acres, burning in dense brush 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Then last Sunday, it exploded. Powerful winds and dry fuel propelled the fire across thousands of acres in a matter of hours, engulfing 19 elite firefighters who were trying to keep it from reaching the nearby town of Yarnell.

Nearly 700 firefighters stepped in to battle the blaze after that. A week later, the fire is nearly contained.

As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, for firefighters, the magnitude of their loss is now sinking in.

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NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: This is a quiet day at the Yarnell Hill Fire's helicopter base. A hot wind blows and three choppers - whirlybirds, as fire crews call them - sit idle in a grass field. To the south, a dark dust devil twists its way up a charcoal hillside - a little twister of ash.

Kevin Craven watches. He's on one of the helicopter crews.

KEVIN CRAVEN: Today's the slower day we've had all week. Yeah. It seems that the fire's kind of slowing down.

ROTT: The Yarnell Hill Fire - all 13 square miles of it - is 90 percent contained. And over a hundred firefighters have been sent home. But those that remain, do so with a purpose, says Carl Schwope. He's another firefighter.

CARL SCHWOPE: They want to put this fire out. They want to end this. That's kind of maybe their respect to the fallen.

ROTT: Schwope says It's a double-edged sword. For the last six days, they've had their noses in the dirt and their minds focused on the task ahead.

SCHWOPE: But then at night when you lay down in your sleeping bag, you know, then all that reality starts to sink in. And I think we're getting to the point now too that this fire's almost out. Then we'll all go home and it's a whole new reality.

ROTT: And that feeling, that the gravity of what happened will soon sink in, isn't relegated to the fire lines.

AMANDA MARSH: I'm Amanda Marsh. I'm Eric's widow.

ROTT: Back in Prescott, Amanda Marsh, wife of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew's leader Eric Marsh sits at a table. She's with five former Hotshots. They've all got nicknames. Phillip Maldonado: Mondo. Scott Bowers: Con Air because Eric thought that with his long hair he looked like Nicholas Cage. And Eric, their leader?

MARSH: They called him Poppa.

PHILLIP MALDONADO: Eric always said we were family, a dysfunctional one, but a good, tight one, you know?

ROTT: That's Maldonado. Jake Tatum - or Tater Tot - says the crew did everything together.

JAKE TATUM: We stick together no matter what. And as you can see from the fallen, that's - I don't have to say anything else about that.

MARSH: They were all together. When they died, they were all together.

ROTT: The families and crewmates they left behind say they'll stick together, too, because when the TV crews go home and the out-of-town firefighters move on to the next blaze...

MARSH: We're going to have to go back to a life that doesn't make sense.

ROTT: Together, they say, they'll get through it. And they'll do it by remembering the motto that Eric pounded into them. This is Matthew Barton, known as BeeBop.

MATTHEW BARTON: Our motto.

MARSH: Yeah.

BARTON: Latin saying. (Foreign language spoken) To be rather than to seem. We all learned it, we all lived it, and we all loved it.

ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News, Prescott, Arizona.

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